Diamond dilemma: Women, softball and baseball

This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here are previous posts on “Title IX, sports and the culture of grievance,” “Pop feminism hits the sports pages” and “Sexuality, Pride and women’s basketball.”

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On a family visit a few years ago, I noticed a very different image on my stepfather’s big screen television from I was accustomed to seeing.

He’s a huge college football and NASCAR fan, and those are about the only sports he watches, along with the NFL. On this particular occasion, which was in May, the game on the set was from the Women’s College World Series — the NCAA softball championship.

I was stunned, since I don’t ever recall him watching softball. As a ponytailed hurler fired underhanded toward the plate, I just had to ask: “So what’s this all about?”

Stolen BasesMy stepfather didn’t hesitate, and this is just how he talks: “I love watching these gals play. They’re good.”

Still floored a little, I then remembered hearing him talk years ago about the recreational softball he played as a young man. Tuning in now, many years after his retirement, brought back happy memories. He truly admired what these young women were doing in a sport he enjoyed playing.

If I relayed this story to Emma Span, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of a baseball book, I don’t believe she’d take my stepfather’s words as a compliment. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Span joined a fairly recent parade of laments about the lack of opportunities for females who want to play baseball.

Decades after girls were allowed to compete in Little League, the numbers are still quite low. Span cited a statistic of fewer than 1,300 girls playing high school baseball nationally, as opposed to nearly 475,000 boys. Under Title IX provisions, girls can get a tryout on a boys team if there is no female equivalent sport, but apparently that isn’t happening all that often in baseball.

The long, wretched history of sexism against women in baseball has had quite a bit to do with ingraining the idea that females aren’t suited to play the sport. It’s not a contact sport like football, which can claim a Title IX tryout exemption for that reason. Females are excelling in much more physically demanding, and more widely offered team sports like basketball and soccer.

But with greater Title IX compliance over the last two decades, they’re also flocking to fast-pitch softball. And this is a troublesome thing for female baseball devotées like Span. Sadly, she recycles feminist theory about the women-in-baseball narrative that seems to blame softball for stalled progress in baseball.

Under the inflammatory — and nonsensical — headline, “Is Softball Sexist?,” Span also referenced a recent book about women in baseball that deserves more consideration. Span alleges that “girls face enormous pressure to switch to softball,” but provides few examples. She draws from University of Nevada-Reno professor Jennifer Ring, author of “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball.”

Ring is the mother of a baseball-playing daughter but she’s also a former women’s studies department head, and her prose oozes with indignation and just sheer whining, such as this:

“Softball was handed to American girls when American middle-class men stole baseball.”

She never mentions how popular softball has been for both genders, and for youths and adults, for decades, as my stepfather experienced. But Ring is convinced that girls “succumb” to softball even if they prefer baseball, without offering much beyond anecdotes. It’s all about sexism, and Span is following her lead. Most regrettably, Ring serves up this departure from common sense:

“Girls are capable of playing baseball with boys into and beyond adolescence, given sufficient cultural encouragement and a lifetime of athletic training like the boys get.”

As a girl who had a fierce throwing arm, and routinely outthrew the boys — until they hit puberty — I can tell you this is simply bullshit.

And bullshit is what has to be called on the mewling arguments that Ring, Span and company are spinning now. In 2009, the same year Ring’s book was published, Marilyn Cohen of St. Peter’s University (N.J.) published a similar tract, “No Girls in the Clubhouse: The Exclusion of Women from Baseball.” No Girls in the Clubhouse

But while Ring’s book is at least accessible to general readers, Cohen drowns anyone who bothers to open her book in academic feminist dogma (see my 2012 e-book, “Beyond Title IX”), right from the start. Cohen, also a former women’s studies chairwoman, has titled the first chapter “Patriarchal Myths,” so you should know what to expect. Like her cohorts, she weaves a grim narrative of sexism, in which women have been “relegated to marginalized sports such as softball.”

Again, this hardly an obscure sport. Span seems chagrined that under Title IX,”equal access is often interpreted to mean not baseball, but softball. . . But the women’s version of baseball is not softball. It’s baseball.”

So how can 363,000 girls — the number of females playing prep softball in the latest National Federation of State High School Association participation survey — be so hopelessly brainwashed? Ditto for the thousands more playing college softball? Why don’t they just switch diamonds already?

Before Title IX was passed, girls and their parents were creating sports teams based on interest. I know, because I was a part of this, playing slow-pitch softball in my suburban Atlanta community’s youth sports association in the early 1970s. It was hardly the game that females play today, and I wasn’t very good at it, but it was the thrill of my youth.

This was as Maria Pepe was challenging the Little League’s ban on girls, of which I was not aware. While there were times I wondered if this were a “lesser” version of baseball, I wasn’t that bothered by it. I could play, and discover the joys of sports, and that’s all that mattered.

Span tries to make the case that girls do have the physical ability to play baseball, and I don’t dispute that. But this isn’t the issue.

They have so many more sports options than ever before, and I don’t see all-female baseball teams proliferating like soccer and lacrosse. Even in women’s basketball, coaches are concerned they’re losing girls to those sports, as well as volleyball.

Not every sport has developed for both genders to compete in comparable numbers. Ask any male who wants to play field hockey and finds himself turned away based on gender, as I did in an interview with Brian Kleczek in the early 1990s.

Later in that decade, I got an earful from members of the U.S. Olympic men’s field hockey team, who got fewer resources from the female-dominated federation. It’s a sport that has even fewer male participants than baseball does women.

My first instinct was to laugh at them — c’mon guys, you’ve had it great for decades. But in their voices I heard the same pain that Kleczek felt, and that Pepe felt. It’s not about gender, but being allowed to play the game you love. This has happened to males and females, but that doesn’t generate the media attention.

Too many advocating for women’s sports don’t respect the individual choices females make about sports — which ones to play, and whether to play them at all. Here’s another slap at cheerleaders, from a former college cheerleader, who insists it’s not a sport. This is a nearly all-female sport that actually has a growing number of competitions.

Span and company are miffed that the revered national pastime remains an overwhelmingly male sport, and that “there is no reason but sexism to prevent them” from getting in the game.

But it’s not that simple, and in taking shots at a sport that has proven to be popular with many, many girls and young women, they come across as petty and boorish.

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